Monday 24 July 2023

Ik Denk Over Je Na, Amsterdam


If there's one thing we Brits do better than the rest of the world, it's train seating.  What's wrong with a nice bit of moquette, Europe?  Why do you hate having comfortable bums?  What's wrong with colour?  The Amsterdam Metro's seats are nice and everything but they don't have the soft yet firm touchability of the Tube.  They do have an interesting quirk, however, which is the names of stations inscribed in them:

But think how much nicer that would be in a coloured moquette.  

Rokin is deep beneath the street of the same name, a long strip of station with exits at both ends and plenty of room for circulation.  Every one of the Noord-Zuidlijn stations had a portion of its budget devoted to artworks, and the theme at Rokin was archaeology, with blown up representations of the treasures uncovered during the construction of the line.  

Treasures-slash-stuff your dad keeps in his shed.  I rode the long escalators up to the surface, giddy with delight at my first underground station, and emerged at the southern exit on Rokin.  Time for a sign selfie.

I really hate it when my bottom lip sticks out like that.

Now this - this was Amsterdam.  City centre canals and boats.  It was barely nine am on a Sunday morning and the party capital of Europe was largely still recovering.  The main activity was a crowd of tourists being loaded onto a tour boat, all of them looking a little lost, their guide treating them like a herd of particularly lazy cattle that needed to be harangued into place.  I ended up at the Muntplein, with its historic tower and a McDonalds I could exploit for its toilet (it cost €0,70 to use it!  Outrageous!).

I'm not sure why, but Amsterdam slightly befuddled me.  I normally have an impeccable sense of direction - alight from the train here, turn right or left, follow this road and you're there.  Something about Amsterdam, however, knocked my gyros off - I frequently had to return to Google Maps on my phone to try and locate myself.  I think it came down to never quite getting the hang of everything being on the opposite side of the road, including the trains.  I would expect to be dropped off on the left hand side of an island platform, and actually I was on the right; I'd look both ways at an intersection, then a bike would appear in the wrong direction.  For some reason it never properly sank in.  Perhaps it was being there for such a short but intense period of time.  Perhaps it was the massive quantities of skunk I smoked while I was there.

The point is, I quickly realised that instead of walking in a straight line south, I'd somehow managed to go in a diagonal to the Rembrandtplein, and then, when I'd attempted to correct myself, I'd gone in the wrong direction again.  (I refuse to go back the way I came - that's the coward's way).  Instead I found myself on the Reguliersgracht, which was not where I'd meant to be, but which turned out to be a very happy accident.

That is the home of Miss Tiffany Case, smuggler and heroine of the classic Bond movie Diamonds are Forever.  James Bond nips up to visit her (third floor), barely disguised as a burglar called Peter Franks, and they exchange quips while she wanders around in her underwear and he wears fake plastic fingerprints.  Like much of Diamonds Are Forever, it is light, frothy, and utterly delightful.  A couple of scenes later 007 beats a man to death in the elevator of the building because, you know, it's a Bond movie.

As time has gone on Diamonds Are Forever has emerged as one of my favourite Connerys.  It's essentially a comedy with a bit of action thrown in, a perfect way to spend a couple of hours, with its tongue rammed so hard in its cheek it practically burrows through.  It's the campest Bond film, camper than any of the Roger Moores even, with a loungecore score by John Barry that I would hum to myself for the rest of the day (a mix of Tiffany Case and The Whyte House, mainly).  The Bond films have gone too serious for my tastes - one of the things I enjoyed most about No Time To Die was it had a ridiculous sci-fi plot again, and some actual fun - and I sort of hope the next one features something as joyous as a pair of homosexual assassins drowning an old lady in a canal.

Having tipped my hat to Miss Case, I rechecked my co-ordinates and managed to find my way to the Vijzelstraat.  Ahead of me was De Bazel, an astonishing lump of Brick Expressionism that squatted across an entire block of the city centre.

The building was built for the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij, a sort of mini Dutch East Indies Company, that moved increasingly into banking and became the ancestor of the present day ABN-AMRO.  De Bazel was built as the headquarters by the architect Karel de Bazel, opening after his death, and was subsequently turned into the Amsterdam city archives.  It's a fantastic, beautiful building, utterly dominant to the street, like something out of Gotham City.  

I crossed a couple more canals and found Vijzelgracht station buried underneath a large road junction.

Escalators took me down from the street to the subterranean ticket hall.  Am I weird for liking outdoor escalators?  There's something weirdly futuristic about them, an upgrade of boring old stairs.  Liverpool One has a few and I always find it slightly exciting to step off the street and onto one.  

Below ground I was a little disappointed.  Vijzelgracht was grey.  Shiny, yes; clean, absolutely.  But grey.  After the mural at Rokin I'd expected more.

It turned out they'd saved the budget for a giant portrait above the other set of escalators.  An LED screen showed a picture of Ramses Shaffy, one of those 1960s European artists that don't seem to have a British equivalent - a little bit Sacha Distel, a little bit Serge Gainsbourg.  He straddled acting and music, with his own theatre group, and seems to have become a national treasure through being louche and decadent.  He had affairs with men, he drank a lot, and he smoked like a chimney, and when he died he was so well regarded there was a campaign to name Vijzelgracht station after him (he lived in the area).  This was politely declined, but they put up a portrait of him at the entrance.

The lines fade in and out, representing parts of his life, though it's difficult to see properly when you're on a descending escalator; the transitions are too slow to really get a hold of what's happening.

I tried listening to some of his music on Spotify, and let's just say it's very much of its time.  The nuances are obviously lost on me due to the language barrier, but it all sounds a bit like the overwrought Eurovision entries that were submitted until Sandie Shaw dragged it kicking and screaming into the Sixties.  Ramses does have a very soothing voice however.  I guess you had to be there.

Vijzelgracht has one more secret; it was built with passive provision for another metro line.  The Oost-Westlijn would go across the city, as its name suggests, interchanging with the Noord-Zuidlijn at Vijzelgracht.  The chances of the line actually being built, at this moment in time, are slim; the city was semi-traumatised by the construction of the Noord-Zuidlijn, and needs time for a breather before it tries anything like that again.  I found reference to a premetro - putting the tram lines in a tunnel across the centre - but nothing more than a suggestion.  

Another quick trip south and I was at De Pijp station.  While the other stations on the 52 are islands, De Pijp had to be squeezed into a narrower site, so the two platforms are above one another.

Escalators take you up to a mezzanine where there are pastel coloured wall panels.  That's your artwork.  It's very... nice.  Like a giant Farrow and Ball sample card.

I managed to take the sign picture for this one as I was actually ascending the escalator, which is why I look a little bit smug.  On arriving at the top a homeless person barked some Dutch at me and I had to flee in confusion so the smugness didn't last too long.

De Pijp also got one of the few above ground buildings on the line.  Most of the time the entrances were slotted underneath existing squares and plazas, but here they demolished corner buildings and built a new one with the metro entrance at the base.

Do you see what I mean about the lack of signage?  That single M - R-Net on the corner is the sole indication that there's a metro station here.  There should be a coloured, backlit band with De Pijp on it, something to grab the eye, something to draw you in.  You can't see that this is a metro station until you're up close, and even then, it's a mystery which one you've stumbled upon until you're practically underground.

The district surrounding the station was a little tackier than the centre, a bit more rough and ready, the kind of area that sells phone cards to let you call abroad at cheaper rates.  There was an "expat" store with a giant Union Jack in the window that lowered the tone, while there were now large apartment buildings in among the traditional townhouses. Small restaurants filled the shop fronts.

There was also this cat in the window of a shop, a cat I am 100% certain is haunted.  I don't know what the shop was selling but I know I don't want it.

Walking in Amsterdam is so easy and relaxing.  Obviously it helps that the highest point in the city is a speedbump, but it's also a city that encourages strolling.  You can breathe.  The traffic isn't too bad - a network of motorways sends you around the city and stops you from coming close - plus the many trams and cycle lanes make motorists bottom of the list of priorities.  There are trees and surprising green spaces everywhere.  And all that water.  Never underestimate the calming influence of happening across a body of cool, gentle canal, reaching away from you.  It's a pause in the city, a place to inhale and readjust.

Speaking of things I was stupidly impressed by - that building is a supermarket, Albert Heijn: basically the Dutch Tesco.  While it looks like a traditional building, it's actually spanking new, and that clock in the clock tower is in reality an LED screen that switches between the time and little messages about the store.  I found it fascinating.

I'd reached RAI Amsterdam.  This is a complex of halls and exhibition spaces built to house conferences and gatherings and, if you're a homosexual reading this, the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970.  That was the one after the four way tie, where the Netherlands literally drew a short straw to host it, and a handful of countries boycotted; I'd like to say it was all made good when All Kinds Of Everything swept to victory, but Dana has some awful political ideas, so that's that ruined too.  (The UK's entry was Knock, Knock (Who's There?), which is a proper banger).  

The central square, and the station beneath it, are called Europaplein, and it's a reminder that Europeans really like being Europeans.  This may sound obvious, but even when we were still in the EU, before we became this miserable little racist island shouting at foreigners on the edge of the continent, the UK never really embraced its European-ness.  There were European flags all over Amsterdam, flown outside businesses as well as political buildings, and sometimes just by people on their homes.  It didn't seem to be statement - it was simply a part of their being.  Calling a massive plaza in your business district Europaplein seemed like an outward reach - we are a small part of something bigger, we look outside our borders, welcome visitors.  Or perhaps my little Remainer heart was just thrilled to be in a place that looked forwards for a change.

Below ground, Europaplein station is emblazoned with a series of photographs that I think are meant to convey Serious Businesspeople At A Conference, but actually come across as stills from some 1970s Euro thriller.  The man and woman in the black and white photos have a strange tension to them that's a little unnerving; every picture looks like you weren't meant to see it.  Add in the pink shapes between the pictures and I felt like I was in a Dario Argento film.  I mean, look at this one:

Tell me that man isn't about to get stabbed to death in some kind of lurid giallo.  I hunkered down against the wall and pulled my shirt close.  I wasn't about to get pushed onto the tracks by some sexually confused psychopath in a trenchcoat, thank you very much.  I had more stations to collect. 

Saturday 22 July 2023

North and South

I was raring to go.  I was pumped.  I leapt out of bed, showered, clattered out of my hotel and across the silent plaza at Amsterdam Zuid.  It was early enough to be dewy still as I headed under the motorway and into the station.  A swipe of the app, through the barriers and up to the platform to find... no trains.  In my enthusiasm to get out, I'd neglected to notice that on a Sunday the trains don't start until 07:38.  I had half an hour to kill on the platform.

Fortunately the architects around the station had given me plenty to look at.  Zuid is the Dutch version of Canary Wharf, a business district with its own World Trade Center, except all the buildings have been designed by people on LSD.  There are no bland glass boxes here.  Every building was fragmented or cracked or in some way broken up to make it look different.  

The last time I was in Amsterdam was 2007, when the BF and I came here for our anniversary.  It was a freezing cold February (don't meet your future husband in winter, it's really inconvenient) and the city centre was an absolute mess.  This was because the city was digging its newest metro line, the M52, and having all sorts of problems in the process.  Amsterdam's soggy soil and preponderance of canals made all the digging difficult; there were collapses and subsidence, while whole streets and plazas were torn open to allow the works to continue.  A planned opening date of 2011 came and went, and the line finally opened in 2018.

This was the line that drew me to Amsterdam's Metro in the first place.  I don't really want to dig into the Freudian implications of this but I love a tunnelled underground station more than almost anything in the world; I don't think I'd be half as keen on Merseyrail if it didn't have those stations deep beneath the earth.  It was a little bit of a disappointment therefore when I got off at Noord station, the northern terminus, and it was not only above ground, but it was actually on an embankment.  That's not what I was after.

You can't argue with that stylish look, though, a glass roof enclosing the two platforms.  I headed down to street level and took my first sign selfie.

I should warn you right now; the signage for the Metro is not great.  In most cases it's a subtle blue sign above the ticket gates, rather than a nice totem out on the street for everyone to see.  From a design perspective this is aesthetically pleasing.  In terms of drawing attention to your wonderful transport network and providing a sense of place, not so much.

Before the Metro arrived, crossing the Ij from the north of Amsterdam to the city centre meant taking a ferry.  Now there's a direct train every few minutes and the property developers have moved in.  Noord station was surrounded by brand new apartment blocks to take advantage of this incredible transport link.  Judging by the two people loitering outside the station in, let's say, a "medicated" state, gentrification has not yet entirely taken over, but it's certainly on its way.

It's still a work in progress, mind.  While the skies around the station are full of cranes and towers, across the Elzenhagensingel there is a stretch of scrub and rough land.  Cycle paths, laid out for a development that hasn't yet come, swing through bare soil and weeds.  I walked up to the road via a set of concrete steps that were almost overgrown and reached a swing bridge.

All nations contain multitudes.  Every cliché you've heard about a country can almost certainly be disproved immediately.  That being said, there's something immensely pleasing to find a stereotype confirmed within minutes of travelling.  I looked over the parapet of the bridge and right beneath me was a canal leading to a windmill.  Welcome to the Netherlands.

I walked along the canal path and got closer to the windmill.  It was marked with Anno 1792, and a neat little plaque gave its history to passers by. 

The path curved round, passing the bottom of a bridge that crossed a dyke that had failed and which they'd simply left open, and into a row of adorably tiny houses.  Each one looked comically pretty, a Disneyworld construction that couldn't possibly be real, but had cars outside and pictures in the window. 

I walked into the Noorderpark, a long strip of greenery that straddles the canal.  Sunday morning meant it was filled with joggers and dog walkers.  People stopped to chat while their dogs played.  It was warm, but not too warm, the shade of the trees making it cool and pleasant to walk.

I was, I realised, utterly content.  The almighty stress of the previous two days fell away.  I realised just how tense and agitated I had been for a long time and now it was lifting off me.  A stroll in a park, exploring unfamiliar paths, being alone with nothing to worry about except where to go to next.  It was blissful.

I found myself smiling for no reason at all.  I was simply happy to be here.  

Soon the park ended and I was at the edge of a large road junction.  Like its brother at Noord, Noorderpark station is built between the carriageways of a major road.  It's a handy way of building a permanent way without intruding on private land.  While Noord's glass roof reached over the tracks on either side, Noorderpark's was centrally positioned, curving down to the platform like an insect carapace.

I headed down to the platform and realised for the first time that the options for travel to each end of the line were quite literally Noord and Zuid - North and South.  You noticed this straight away I'm sure, but I'm a bit thick. I found this disproportionately amusing, and it'll be a shame if they build the proposed extensions to Schiphol and Zandaam and lose the pleasing symmetry.

For the time being, Noorderpark is the last station before you head under the river and into Amsterdam's city centre.  There is a concrete box around the tunnel at Sixhaven, right on the edge of the Ij, ready for a station in future, but it's in an area of low density housing, parkland and marinas at the moment.  The potential usage levels are low and so any idea of building it has effectively been taken off the table in favour of extensions.  Until that happens, the next station is Amsterdam Centraal, though that wasn't going to be my next stop.  I decided that iconic station needed a proper visit, above ground, so my next stop was a little further south in the city centre: Rokin.

No, the odd faces in front of station signs aren't any better just because I'm abroad.

Friday 21 July 2023


The BF has a friend.  I know, I'm as surprised as you.

For years now they've gone on a little mini break in the summer.  Somewhere in Europe for a few days.  Nice little trip away.  I've not partaken, because I think you should sometimes have separate experiences as a couple, and let's be honest sometimes it's nice to have a break.  Instead I've often travelled across the UK for this blog.  Wales perhaps, or the Isle of Wight.  Something like that.

This time, the first trip post-pandemic, they decided to go to Berlin.  And a small thought occurred to me.  I could go somewhere in the UK for my trip.  Or I could go abroad.  Look around another city's railway.  Proper underground stations instead of pootling round the English countryside.  But where?

The Amsterdam Metro.  Thirty six stations on four different lines.  A modern, exciting network that's just across the North Sea in a beautiful and vibrant city.

I worked it out in detail.  Three full days of exploration would enable me to visit every Metro station in true Merseytart style: taking a train, passing through the ticket gates, and walking to the next one along for the next train.  Properly visiting them and getting a feel for the city.  

It was incredibly thrilling to me: a new place to collect and mark off.  A new map to conquer.  

For reasons far too dull to go into here, both the BF and I were taking flights from Luton Airport.  I waved him off on the Friday then waited for my plane to Amsterdam.  (Before you ask, the Eurostar was far more expensive, and the timings were weird).  

The first warning sign was the general lateness of the plane.  It was an hour past schedule when we finally got to the gate.  We passed through the passport check, waited to board, then got a message, shouted at us by the girl on the desk: there was no pilot for our plane, so we were all being "deboarded", a word I have never heard before and I'm pretty sure she'd made up.  We headed back to the gate to wait some more.

An hour later, the phones of everyone in the gate purred and bleeped and sang.  A single message had gone to all of us: We're really sorry that your flight has been cancelled.  To see the options available to you, go to Manage Bookings in the app...

That was it.  No announcements, no nothing.  The staff were nowhere to be seen.  A sense of panic and horror sank into me.  This was what I got for actually looking forward to something.  This was punishment.  I scanned the app for alternative flights from Luton: none until late Sunday night.  I clicked the "refund" button with despondency.  I was ready to write it all off.  Head back to Birkenhead and cry into a pillow.

There was another announcement, asking all of us on the cancelled flight to head to Gate 6 for information.  There, a crowd of harassed and irate passengers surrounded a tiny man who stammered that we would all be getting €250 compensation and a refund on our flight, but could we all kindly leave the airport because we were kind of annoying?  I hammered the apps and found a flight from Gatwick the following night, then a hotel room at a Holiday Inn close to the airport.  The compensation was spent immediately but at least I might be able to get to Amsterdam.  (Before you ask, the Eurostar was entirely sold out all weekend).

The following morning, after a tense sleep in the hotel, I dragged myself to the station.  My flight from Gatwick wasn't until the evening so I had time to kill.  I headed into London.  Maybe I could find some solace in railways?  Of course I could.  The only thing that could cheer me in times of crisis like this was riding the Tube.  More than the Tube; I actually went on the Elizabeth Line for the first time.  Not the circumstances I'd planned, but at least it happened.  I got to go to Woolwich station, which I'd visited when it was nothing more than a hole:

I larked around on the Jubilee; I got the DLR.  I went all over until finally it was time to head for Gatwick.  A train from London Bridge and I was at the airport, but the wrong terminal.  You know what that meant?  The Gatwick people mover that connects the two stations!

It's not a monorail, no matter how much you want to sing the song.  It's an automated train on rubber tyres.  So I got on at South Terminal:

...rode the people mover...

...and got off at North Terminal.

No, this isn't very exciting.  What you have to remember is that as I did all this train riding I was filled with a nihilistic despair and overwhelming pessimism that I was ever going to reach Amsterdam.  It wasn't helped by the fact that once we actually got on board the plane, we did nothing but sit on the tarmac for an hour.  A problem with the baggage, apparently, though they may as well have simply said "we want to drive the man in seat 7C absolutely insane".  You'll notice I've not mentioned the airline involved in all of this; this is because I am a classy individual who doesn't bear a grudge, and I couldn't possibly name them because that would be rude.

At ten o'clock on the Saturday, roughly 28 hours later than I'd planned, I finally reached my hotel.  I collapsed on the bed and tried not to think about that lost day.  I still had all those stations to collect, and I was determined to do it, even if it killed me.

(Spoiler: I did not die).